If it was looking to bring more success to the Farm, Stanford athletics made the right decision when it chose to add women’s sand volleyball to its existing 35 varsity sports programs. In its inaugural season, the Card finished 7-1, sweeping all three meetings with Santa Clara, falling only to Saint Mary’s and coming out on top against Sacramento State, San Francisco and Pacific.
“It was really fun, because you’re outside and it’s a different, more relaxed environment,” said junior Mary Ellen Luck. “Ball control is really different [than in indoor volleyball], and it’s less about power and more about placing the ball. It was good because it helped everyone get more well-rounded in their game because you have to do everything.”
While not yet an NCAA sport, sand volleyball is gaining momentum across the nation. Fellow Pac-12 schools that have added the sport include Cal, UCLA, USC and Arizona. Arizona will see its inaugural season next year and USC, which just completed its second season, already offers sand volleyball scholarships.
Head coach John Dunning explained that the university will offer scholarships to sand volleyball players once funding is available to start recruiting specifically for the budding sport, instead of just having indoor players play for both teams.
With all that the team has accomplished in its first season — and especially considering the players’ lack of previous experience with the sport — it is likely that the university will put more funds towards sand volleyball once it becomes an NCAA sport.
In sand volleyball’s second season, 31 schools from all across the country competed. At least three schools have committed to adding the sport to its list of varsity programs for the 2014 season, and once the magic number of 40 schools is met it will become an NCAA sanctioned sport.
Despite only practicing a couple times before the start of the season, the players quickly adjusted to the different style of play and learned their strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s hard transitioning between the two because some of the rules in sand are different,” Luck said. “It was most apparent when we first went out to the sand and we tried to do things that were illegal in sand [volleyball]. It’s funny going back and forth since the games are so different.”
The coaches, also on a learning curve, were able to assess the skill levels of the girls throughout the short season and make changes accordingly.
Three different pairs, for example, held the No. 1 spot. Santa Barbara native Carly Wopat started off the first three matches with freshman Jordan Burgess, before playing with freshman Brittany Howard. Wopat is the only player to enter the season with any previous beach volleyball experience.
A full transition was made for the final match of the season against Santa Clara, with Burgess and junior Rachel Williams replacing Wopat and Howard. All three pairs had great success, combining for only one loss at the No. 1 spot.
“Mainly I think when you have to look at the game in a new way it can spark new ideas and change the way you’re playing and get you to improve at a new level. We’ve been playing indoor for a really long time, so it makes you feel like you’re doing the same thing and its hard to get out of a funk, but then you play outdoors and it’s a completely different game,” said Burgess. “I felt like we were re-learning even the most basic things, like how to bump and how to move and set up our approaches. Being forced to rethink the basics of volleyball, it’ll make us much better players.”
While in the midst of the sand volleyball season, the players had to take a break from indoor training. However, attention will now be moved from the sand to the court as the team prepares for the 2013 season and works toward defending its Pac-12 title in the fall.
“I think that sand is going to help us a lot with indoor: moving faster, covering more ground, jumping higher,” said freshman Madi Bugg. “I’m excited [to see the improvements].”
For now the Cardinal has a break from team practices, as only individual practices will be held until the fall. Many players will be playing on the national team in the summer or assisting with volleyball camps on campus, while freshman Inky Ajanaku will be representing the Card in China on the Pac-12 All Star Team.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem “at” stanford.edu.